A third of progressives in Congress’ freshman class have formed leadership PACs, a move that has helped lawmakers raise their profile within the party but also drawn scrutiny from outside liberal groups decrying the influence of money in politics.
Seven out of the 21 first-year lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) have leadership PACs, compared with three at this point in the previous Congress.
The PACs, often funded by corporations, trade associations and labor unions, can be used by lawmakers to donate to other candidates and pay for expenses that are typically off limits to campaigns and congressional offices.
And that’s not sitting well with some groups that are otherwise supportive of progressive lawmakers.
“Leadership PACs have essentially become slush funds and are one of the most egregious loopholes in campaign finance laws,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink, told The Hill. “No progressive candidates should have one. Instead, they should focus on grassroots fundraising, while simultaneously working for publicly funded elections and for overturning Citizens United.”
Any lawmaker, former lawmaker, or political figure can form a leadership PAC. And having one is considered a necessity for climbing the party ranks, for both Democrats and Republicans.
The freshmen CPC lawmakers’ offices did not respond to requests for comment.
While leadership PACs are not associated with their own campaigns, they are used to pay for various campaign-related items.
During the 2018 cycle, politicians used leadership PACs to pay for golf clubs, resorts, NFL games, and international travel, according to a letter Issue One and Campaign Legal Center sent to the Federal Election Commission in May.
The vast majority of members of Congress have leadership PACs, including three lawmakers who have introduced legislation to curtail them.
Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) have introduced the Political Accountability and Transparency Act, which would impose restrictions on the use of campaign funds for personal use to leadership PACs funds.
Not all progressive groups are opposed to the PACs that have become almost ubiquitous on Capitol Hill.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), argued that the freshmen CPC members with leadership PACs have strong grassroots fundraising bases. He also noted that unlike super PACs, the leadership ones have limitations on contributions.
“Big-money SuperPACs, where billionaires make unlimited donations to flood the zone, represent corruption in our democracy,” Green said. “Small-dollar political action committees like MoveOn, the PCCC, Justice Democrats, and these grassroots-funded leadership PACs by progressives like [Ocasio-Cortez] and Ilhan are how workers and grandmas unite to take back our democracy together. One is the poison, the other is the antidote.”
Individuals can give up to $5,000 per year to a leadership PAC, compared to the $2,800 an individual can contribute to a campaign. That $5,000 cap is also the limit for corporate and trade association PACs, as well as for candidate committees and party committees.
The Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of centrist Democrats, has only two freshmen with leadership PACs. Ten freshmen are in the coalition, which consists of 26 members overall. The CPC has 99 members.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) has the most of the freshmen Blue Dogs, with $6,000 in total receipts.
Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), a co-chair of the Blue Dogs, formed a leadership PAC in January but has not yet raised any money for it.
Blue Dog member Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), does not have a leadership PAC and his spokesperson said he has no plans to do so.
“He hasn’t taken a single dime from PACs or special interest groups. He’s accountable to the people of the Lowcountry and no one else,” spokeswoman Rebecca Drago said, referring to the region in South Carolina that Cunningham represents.
Of the House freshmen, 47 out of 89 have leadership PACs — 24 Democrats and 23 Republicans.
Other freshmen offices told The Hill they are in the process of forming leadership PACs.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) has the most in his leadership PAC out of all House freshmen, with just under $58,000. He is closely followed by Rep. Mike Waltz’s (R-Fla.), who has more than $56,000.
All nine of the Senate freshmen have leadership PACs and collectively have in excess of $1.4 million. Those amounts ranged from $5,000 for Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) to more than $350,000 for Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), much of which she carried over from when she was in the House.
The biggest leadership PACs on Capitol Hill belong to Rep. Mark Meadows’s (R-N.C.) House Freedom Fund, which has more than $3 million, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) Majority Committee PAC, with almost $2 million, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, which has just over $1.5 million.
Sutton Dunwoodie contributed to this report.